Let's first be crystal clear about one thing: what Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade has accomplished in the last month, coming into tonight's Game of the Week at home versus Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens, is more than just the team's best stretch of basketball since rejoining the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague four seasons ago.
Earlier this season, when the team got off to a 2-4 start, the question was whether Zvezda had what it took to make another charge into the playoffs as it did last year. As the team rebounded to win three of its next five, positioning itself in the middle of the pack, there was still the caveat that all of its victims until then were struggling teams that are now ranked 10th through 16h in the standings. But what has happened in the last month has not only erased any doubts about this team: it has put Zvezda in a position of strength like it has never known before.
Let us count the ways.
- This ongoing six-game winning streak is already Zvezda's longest in those four seasons since its return to the European elite.
- Its 11-8 record marks the soonest it has reached so many victories, including last season, when it made a historic run to the playoffs.
- Four of Zvezda's newest six victims over the last 30 days were Real Madrid, Fenerbahce Istanbul, CSKA Moscow, Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz – teams ranked first to seventh in the standings now.
- The aforementioned quartet of Zvezda's victims include all three Final Four teams from last season who are playing in the EuroLeague now and both champions over the last two seasons. Together, the four of them account for 13 Final Four appearances since 2011.
Wait, there's more.
Zvezda's first four road wins this season (including at Zalgiris Kaunas and Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv during the current streak) were by 2, 2, 4 and 4 points, respectively. What happened on the court of Baskonia on Tuesday was off the charts by comparison, an ambush of epic proportions. Zvezda won by 22 – the same total in fact, as they had won by a couple years earlier in Vitoria – but it wasn't the same. This time, Baskonia was a team that still had the swagger of having been in the Final Four last year and thrived near the top of the standings throughout this one. Baskonia had won its previous two home games by scoring more than 100 points in each. And it had not lost to any team except Olympiacos Piraeus in its previous 25 home games.
Despite all that, Zvezda blasted Baskonia off its own floor. It was 27-50 at halftime for cryin' out loud!
One thing Tuesday's road win did was forever dispel the notion that Zvezda is tough, yeah, but only at home, where its fans are famous for exerting pressure in the form of decibels on all visiting teams, to the point of making communication on the court all but impossible and clear thinking not so easy, either. Visiting players must look up at times in Belgrade and thing they are no longer playing five-on-five, but rather five-on-thousands. But even if all that is true... you could play Zvezda in an empty gym anywhere right now and you had better come ready, because this team will do so, for sure.
One of the many impressive aspects of Zvezda's ascendency is the way this team takes the floor, like a young Mike Tyson entering the boxing ring and not letting his opponent leave his own corner before the first blows are raining down. A major part of that in-your-face attitude that starts at tipoff is Zvezda's confidence in its full-metal defense, which assures, even when things aren't going well, that this team never feels out of a game. Rather, the sense is always there that Zvezda is just a few stops from taking any game over, and making stops for these guys is like dunking for other players. Remember, this is the youngest team in the EuroLeague, at 24.3 years on average, so spending energy is not a problem, and good defense requires a whole lot of energy. They love tiring out their opponents, mentally as well as physically, as fast as possible!
None of which to say that Panathinaikos is incapable of stopping Zvezda's streak in its tracks tonight. Yes, the Greens are walking into a lion's den tonight at Aleksandar Nikolic Arena, but Panathinaikos knows more than a thing or two about tough crowds. Only recently, the Greens stared down archrival Olympiacos Piraeus to the final play of a 77-79 road loss where the crowd was more vehemently against them as tonight's will be. Then, a couple of month later, they went to Peace and Friendship Stadium and knocked Olympiacos from the Greek Cup. It was on that same floor, remember, that Zvezda suffered its last defeat by 73-65 at the hands of Olympiacos. The Panathinaikos players, not to mention head coach Xavi Pascual, know exactly what to expect from Zvezda's sixth man, the fans. But no team takes care of the ball better than the Greens, who commit the fewest turnovers of all EuroLeague teams, which is lesson number one when trying to beat Zvezda.
To understand how it has climbed from de facto newcomer four seasons ago, to Top 16 qualifier three seasons ago, to playoff team last season, to its current state of grace, consider a seemingly meaningless game played against Panathinaikos back when Zvezda was a second thought. It was Zvezda's last game of the 2014-15 season, the club's first in the Top 16, and the team was long gone from playoff contention. Panathinaikos was in Belgrade to tune up for the playoffs, but the Greens got more of a tuneup than they bargained for as Zvezda rewarded its fans with a stirring 69-68 victory. It marked the first time that Zvezda had beaten Panathinaikos since 1969!
It is that kind of pride even when there is nothing tangible to win – or, perhaps, especially under those circumstances – that builds character. Zvezda has built that character, brick by brick, over a few years, in the same way that Panathinaikos and others built their reputations back in the day. And it might not be very long before Zvezda is included consistently in the same breath with many of the big names it has beaten during its remarkable start to 2017.